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This is admittedly a variation on why study Latin (see Related questions below), but there is specific aspect/motivation that I would like to explore deeper.

Often cited reasons for studying classical languages (like Latin, Ancient Greek, Biblical Hebrew, Sanskrit, Classical Arabic) are:

  • Religious reasons
  • Their cultural importance
  • Their closeness to one's native language

Other reason cited are intellectual curiosity and even that mastering Latin (or another dead language) first would make it easier to learn other languages. Until recently this has not seemed to me as a serious claim, due to my personal experience of learning several foreign languages - the amount of effort and time required for learning a language to a decent level is simply too prohibitive, to learn two languages instead of one target language.

There is however another way to look at it: Classical language manuals seem to attack head on the mechanics of the target language (phonetic laws, sentence structure, etc.), whereas the manuals for learning living languages understandably focus firstly on colloquial and everyday matters, leaving understanding of fine points to advanced learner (if one ever become one, as by then one has working knowledge of the language.)

The narrower question is thus: does learning a classical language help to improve one's mastery of other languages (and how much beyond word etymology)?

Related questions
What are the benefits of studying Latin?
Why speak in Latin in 2020?
Statistics for why people choose to study Latin

Remarks:

  • Studying modern languages necessarily addresses the ensemble of the major language skills: listening/speaking, reading/writing, and understanding language structures (these are the five addressed in the tests designed according to CEFR framework.) In studying classical languages one likely focuses mainly on reading and understanding language structures.
  • Modern languages require being able to "perform in real time", which poses stringent demands on pronunciation and vocabulary knowledge, whereas working on a text in a classical language can be done with a dictionary and at a slower pace.
  • Working on a written text likely requires deeper understanding/knowledge of advanced syntactic structures, whereas for live languages the priority is correctly building simple phrases. The compound/complex sentences are usually left to advanced courses.
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    Anecdotally, as someone who started with Latin before looking at other languages, it has changed how I approach learning modern languages. I find I want that same "head-on attack" with mechanics in addition to simply learning colloquial and everyday language.
    – Adam
    Mar 8, 2023 at 16:08
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    I agree. I took Latin and some French in high school, and I learned more Latin in one month than I did in one year of French. After two years of high school Latin, one can read original texts. Meanwhile, in French class, they were still doing silly songs. Even now, I'm immediately turned off of any language learning materials that don't immediately get down and dirty with the actual mechanics of the language.
    – cmw
    Mar 8, 2023 at 16:35
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    It's important to note that you can study modern languages using a 'head-on' method (explicit, extensive focus on grammar and vocabulary as opposed to practical speech), but such materials/courses are less popular so harder to find. Older textbooks, and materials for those like linguists who have the same priorities, are a good place to start.
    – dbmag9
    Mar 8, 2023 at 21:49
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    There are a number of specific and interesting points about Latin grammar learning and its relation to other languages in this answer: latin.stackexchange.com/a/17129/1439
    – dbmag9
    Mar 8, 2023 at 22:12
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    One should not discount etymology as a benefit, as it can have interesting secondary benefits. For example, I learned Latin at an intermediate level in high school, and I find that has helped me a lot when it comes to memorizing noun genders in modern Italic languages, because they largely map directly to the genders of their etymological ancestors in Latin (though this is not always a 1:1 mapping). Mar 9, 2023 at 1:37

1 Answer 1

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Does learning a classical language help to improve one's mastery of other languages (and how much beyond word etymology)?

As you've noted, most classical language teaching is 'head-on' (explicit, extensive focus on grammar and vocabulary as opposed to practical speech) compared to most modern language teaching nowadays (which prioritises practical phrases either because that is what learners want or because it's considered more engaging).

However, if all you want is 'head-on' language learning you can find it for modern languages too, you just have to look harder – older textbooks, or materials produced for those whose priorities align with yours (linguists, professionals who must quickly reach a good level of fluency, etc.) will all serve your purpose. Learning a classical language in this case adds time rather than saving it.

The benefits of a classical language in this domain are:

  • 'Head-on' teaching is the norm for classical languages, so resources are much more well-developed and available. Latin is the biggest example, taught to children and teenagers around the world and so there are a wide variety of modern teaching resources, grammars, annotated texts, assessment material etc. This means that learning a classical language might be the best way to learn about some grammatical concepts; for example, you might feel you are taught what grammatical mood is much more clearly in learning Latin than in learning French.
  • A lot of grammatical terminology and concepts were established by people studying classical languages, and so studying the classical languages is a good way to understand the concepts which are then applied to modern languages.
  • To some extent, languages 'branch outwards' so for example learning Latin gives insight into all the Romance languages. Studying a language that is a precursor to multiple modern languages means you conceivably get insight into all the successors, although of course you need to separately learn how those successors differ.

Finally, I'm of the opinion that learning any language helps learn additional languages; each new way of encoding information makes your brain more open to learning new ways to encode information. I think that fact, combined with what you've identified about 'head-on' language teaching, accounts for basically all the benefit of learning a classical language to learning a modern one. My reasons for learning a classical language wouldn't be such utilitarian ones.

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    Not only are 'head-on' resources harder to find, if you haven't already used similar resources before, you likely won't even know they exist. Mar 9, 2023 at 19:37
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    +1 for the last paragraph. It's the learning process itself that's important -- you're rewiring your brain, training it to think in new ways. This question is akin to what is often asked in many math classes I've taught -- "Why do we have to know this? We'll never use it in the real world." That's true, but your brain has been trained how to solve problems in a new way, and it's that which is the benefit, not the problem itself.
    – MPW
    Mar 9, 2023 at 19:46
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    While this isn’t specific to classical languages, learning another language also helps a student better understand their acquired (AKA "native") language. For example, 80%-90% of the English grammar I know, I learned in Latin class. Mar 9, 2023 at 19:57

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